At the Sand Ridge Golf Club in Chardon, the lawns are as crisp and green as newly minted bills, and the cobalt waters of the Cuyahoga and Chagrin rivers run through the course like veins. The air is still as the Jaguars and Mercedes that are valet-parked out front.
And the price of beauty is expectedly steep. Golf Digest's 55th greatest course in America has a $39,000 initiation fee, and nobody gets in without a sponsor. Sand Ridge counts only 367 members, roughly one for each of its 350 verdant acres.
"What I like most about the club," says member Warren Schmelzer, "is that it's so nondiscriminatory."
But this is no ordinary day at Sand Ridge. The No. 1 hole looks set to host a wedding, its fairway bedecked in white ribbon, a white tent pitched a few feet from the tee, and low-back chairs aligned in rows of military precision. Sixty big shots have forked over as much as $550 each to frolic on the grounds this afternoon.
Today, the Hit Man is coming.
"I'm excited," cries Norm Wells, the toothy CEO of Sovereign Chemicals, to his CFO, Terry Smith. "I missed him on the Golf Channel, but I heard he was amazing."
"The things the man can do with a club," adds attorney David Lum. "Wow."
As the big shots flock around the first tee, Schmelzer stands at the front of the clubhouse next to Terry Kavalec, CEO of the Fitness Clinic. Schmelzer is his marketing director; the two have organized the day's event. They watch with smug expressions, like the parents of gifted teens. "We were so lucky to get the Hit Man," beams Kavalec.
"Uh-huh." Schmelzer nods emphatically.
To even dream of hooking the Hit Man, one must overlook certain celebrity idiosyncrasies. Like the fact that he doesn't find it necessary to inform organizers where he's staying or when he'll be arriving, saying only that a bill will be supplied once he's come and gone. Beg for his services -- just don't ask questions.
"Well, you know, he is the Hit Man," Kavalec says dismissively.
"And the Hit Man is not just anyone," Schmelzer reminds the group. "The Hit Man can do anything."
Back at the tee, the big shots modestly compare handicaps while their junior partners and associates immodestly correct them.
At 11, Kavalec approaches the podium.
"Attention . . . attention," he says, tapping the mic. "Let's give a big Sand Ridge Welcome to Chuck 'the Hit Man' Hiter."
The big shots tap their fingers together excitedly. Baseball-capped heads swivel to witness the approach of the Hit Man, who is not approaching.
Kavalec looks nervous. "Jeez, where is he?" he whispers to Schmelzer. Schmelzer looks at the sky, as if their guest might fall from there.
A few uncomfortable moments later, the Hit Man chugs up the hill in a Sand Ridge cart. "I'm here!" he says with a wave of his hand.
Kavalec's sigh is amplified through the speaker, sounding like the lisp of a child.
There is a mini-eruption of applause, and the big shots strain to get a look at the 40-year-old in the cherry-red Cobra golf shirt and fitted ball cap.
"He looks just like he does on the Golf Channel!" one gushes.
The Hit Man is indeed handsome, with graying sideburns and a broad face so devoid of fat you can actually see his muscles contracting when he smiles. His voice is as smooth as sanded wood, and his gestures are big and exaggerated.
More important, the Hit Man can hit a golf ball farther than anyone else in the world, and he does it with the effort one might exert in a morning stroll. He is the self-proclaimed Harlem Globetrotter of golf, master of unicycle swings and stilt shots.
On the tee, the Hit Man takes a ball from his basket. He slips it between his teeth, then puffs it out, like a Titleist-breathing dragon. Just as the ball begins its descent, he slams it, Barry Bonds-style, perhaps two communities away. It's his signature move.
The big shots, fanned out around the Hit Man, study him like schoolchildren.
"Didja see that? Didja see that?"
The CEO of Sovereign Chemicals keeps twisting back to make sure that his CFO did in fact see that. Smith, standing with mouth open, did.
The Hit Man, with his expensive attire and dinner-party mannerisms, would fit in at any elite course in America. Funny, then, that he started out as a paint salesman for Wal-Mart when an injury sidelined his baseball career. He picked up his first club in his early 20s and started touring professionally within a year. His breakthrough came when he realized his gift for striking golf balls baseball-style. People loved him. He gave four presentations a year. Then 20. Now 120.
At Sand Ridge, he swings clubs like lassos, hits balls off nine-foot tees, and balances precariously on basketballs, all the while maintaining a steady stream of conversation and shooting off punchy one-liners. By the end of the hour, his legend is cemented.
The big shots, still starry-eyed, hand over $25 for their own copies of the Amazing Trick Shots With the Hit Man video; then they disperse to the buffet lunch. At that moment, a small swarm of men, deftly camouflaged in clubwear, descends upon the Hit Man. One throws his arm lazily around his shoulder, praising the presentation. Then, oh so casually, he asks what it would take to book the Hit Man for a corporate event.
Schmelzer overhears the conversation, and his face turns a cartoonish shade of red.
"Those guys are from the Mayfield Country Club!" he stammers to Kavalec. "They're trying to recruit the Hit Man. Get them out of here. This is my event! My event. They can't have the Hit Man."
Before the ugliness can spill out over Sand Ridge, the infiltrators retreat quietly from the grounds. The Mayfield menace successfully thwarted, Schmelzer storms off to the buffet.